Not long after the premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson got a call from Universal Pictures offering him the film of a lifetime, King Kong. It seems strange to say that King Kong is the film of a lifetime when Jackson is in the midst of the most ambitious film trilogy of all time, but King Kong had been a part of the filmmaker’s life since he was a small child.
The release of Jackson’s King Kong was a smooth one, becoming a box office hit (a huge home video money maker) and earning the respect of critics at an 84% on Rotten Tomatoes. This might seem like an odd film to say is “underrated”, but over time the film didn’t retain the same beloved reception with some fans arguing the film’s runtime makes it feel bloated. Audience reception currently sits at a 50% on Rotten Tomatoes.
It is a popular opinion to say Jackson’s career dipped after Lord of the Rings but I’m here to say he did have one movie after Lord of the Rings that is nearly as good and is a masterclass in blockbuster filmmaking.
Unburdened by studio micromanaging, Jackson unleashed a singular vision of what his King Kong movie would be, a tale of tragedy, love, and adventure. Jackson flexed his creative muscles throughout the project and made it everything that a big-budget monster movie should be.
The Long Voyage Is Worth It
It is impossible to not see a filmmaker’s passion for a project come across the screen. Jackson’s 3-hour runtime is heavily criticized but it works on so many levels. Intermixing cutting edge visual effects and a massive amount of miniatures, King Kong feels massive in scale.
The movie has a ton of wide shots that are able to capture so much in a single frame, while not overwhelming the audience, unlike some of the Star Wars prequels. Skull Island, the home of Kong, feels like a unique place, but Jackson shows an amazing amount of restraint. Instead of jumping into the massive monster action sequences, we spend the first hour of the film on the journey to the island.
In making that choice to build up to the monster action, Jackson allows plenty of time to not only develop the main characters, but also get to know the supporting cast. Jackson could have taken the easy route and made the supporting characters “red shirts” but his screenplay & the actors are able to inject personality into the characters that allow for empathy. When a character dies it affects you.
Compare this to Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s Kong: Skull Island, where the film is right at two hours in length and we don’t care about the majority of the human side characters in the ways we did during Jackson’s film. This isn’t to say every King Kong movie needs to be three hours but there shouldnbe time to care about the characters. The story shouldn’t rush to get to Kong, otherwise we might as well just start on Skull Island. If there are no compelling characters than what’s the point?
The Kong movies are always about modern civilization invading another time and culture. The ending of Kong is literally the modern technology of man gunning down an animal who was ripped from his home from a time long forgotten.
Two things need to work: King Kong (which we’ll get too in a moment) and the human characters who we go on this journey with.
Some need to play into the tragic nature of the story, while other characters need to oppose it. That takes time, and Jackson is well aware of the amount of monster action that is in the back half of this film. The human characters need to work first, and it’s safe to say that they do.
In my personal opinion, this particular version of King Kong needed to be three hours.
Enter the King
And enter, Kong does.
Jackson’s King Kong is the first of King Kong to be a full CGI creation, but Jackson wasn’t content to simply make a computer model of a big Gorilla. Jackson’s story required pathos and empathy, he needed the audience to fall in love with Kong. You need to believe that Namoi Watts’s Ann Darrow would grow to care about Kong. Jackson needed to give Kong a sense humanity.
Instead of sculpting the animal from scratch, Jackson and his team of visual effects wizards at WETA Digital decided to imbue the big ape with Andry Serkis’s human performance. Fresh off his work as Gollum in The Lord of The Rings, Serkis brought his motion capture talents to the character of Kong.
Serkis extensively studied ape behavior, going to zoos and even going as far as to study the wild apes in the jungle (against the entire’s production’s wishes). Serkis’s facial performance feels like a real ape and is able to play convincing off of Namoi Watt’s tender performance.
Unlike other versions of the movie, the relationship between King Kong and Ann Darrow isn’t creepy and you believe there the two actually care for one another, which makes the end of this story particularly heart-wrenching.
If you are going to make a monster movie where monsters fight, the action has to be memorable. I cannot remember a single major beat of action from Kong: Skull Island or Rampage. Action needs to have cadence and rhythm, it can’t be monotonous.
Jackson knows when to let audiences breath and when to throw them into the deep end. He is able to move action sequences into their own blocks and sections even within the same sequence. The T-Rex fight has four major sections of the battle. Before Kong shows up as Ann is on the run from the T-Rexes, when Kong shows up, the battle in the vines, and then the finale on the ground. By doing this, the action never gets boring.
This isn’ the only amazing action sequence but it is the most memorable. The way Jackson does his action also allows him to be able to mix and match different tones and moods. There more than a few action sequences where Jackson returns to his horror roots allowing for variety, and in a three hour long epic, variety is key.
I’m Not Crying You Are Crying!
It was said that kids cried when Kong was gunned down off the Empire State Building in 1933. As much as I loved that movie, I didn’t have that same reaction. It was tragic, but I didn’t cry. In Jackson’s King Kong however, some tears were definitely shed.
This is where the entire three hours come together. Every piece of the journey and all of the character relationship building all comes together. Kong escapes his captivity and starts to be attacked by the U.S. Army. Kong climbs the Empire State Building and watches the sunrise with Ann just as they did on Skull Island, but then the airplanes fly overhead, James Newton Howard’s score becomes ominous, and the drums start pounding as a signal to the audience that tragedy is coming.
This is a long sequence as all the characters make their way to the Empire State Building. Ann does what she can to save Kong while Jack Driscol makes his way to save Ann. With each bullet hitting Kong, Howard’s score punctuates the dire results.
Jackson pours over every agonizing moment making the audience feel everything the characters are feeling, the brief moments of triumph as Kong takes down a bi-plane, but then also the painful moments of watching Kong, the mighty King of Skull Island, be weakened to the point where he can’t stand and slowly begins to slide out of frame falling off the building.
This entire sequence is a spectacle, but it’s all rooted in character and emotion. It’s the best kind of spectacle. It’s the kind where the advantages of being a blockbuster shine and the absolute control of the director’s artistic vision are allowed to flourish.
Closing Thoughts On The Beast
I can go on and on why I love this movie. I could talk about individual sequences, performances, and how AMAZING James Newton Howard’s score is, but I would be writing an article as long as the movie itself. The shame of it is, people don’t talk about this movie as one of the great American blockbusters. They will call it bloated, but I’ve never seen a convincing list of things to cut and trim.
Everything in this movie either contributes to the narrative, character arcs, or simply to the adventure. At this point, as Roger Ebert put it in his wonderful review, we are just complaining about having too much of a good thing. This film is significantly underrated, under-appreciated and under-valued. Still not convinced? Go watch it again!